I push open the door and the stale odors hit me like a sensual riot. I wonder if this is how a creature with a great sense of smell would see the world, a dog, a wolf, a vampire girl. It sweeps over you, stepping from the hot southern air off Broad St. into the attic coolness of the old Treasure Chest antique shop, mostly a junk shop where things discarded but unbroken come to languish and die. As I breathe in the aggressive aromas, an old idea haunts me. It’s a distinctly Japanese idea. Japanese have this notion that all objects, even inanimate objects, have a soul, an emotional awareness. I feel this way instinctively. I suspect it may be an odd form of synesthesia, an accidental neural bleed over of senses, in my case of emotions. I often have a hard time connecting to people, but wherever I go I feel connected to everything around me. When I hear a man cursing out his car, I feel painful not for the man, but for the car. Like a mistreated horse, as though the pride of strength of the car is hurt. I think to myself, that car will not love him well. That car will not serve him.
To the left, is a shelf of old cameras and photo gear going back to my era. There was a time I would have been thrilled to own any of those cameras.. Now I can buy a digital camera in the mall for less than a hundred bucks that can out shoot any of them. But there’s beauty in old things. They have soul, and character. Even in women, girls have never fascinated or aroused me the way older women do. Girls look hard and green to me. Women have a way of looking full and ripe and juicy. Only women are women. It’s how I’m wired. If any inanimate things in the world have soul, it’s the things surrounding me here, things with history, who were precious to somebody once, things with memories embedded in their atoms. The rows of glass eyed cameras are crying out to me to take them home, load them with film. Take them on a picnic. Adjust their shutters, compose the shot, wind the film. Let them see the world outside fresh again.
An old man, maybe discarded himself comes up from somewhere leaning on a hand carved African walking stick. “Hey,” I say. “Mostly looking.”
“Feel free. H’ep you find somethin’?”
I’m embarrassed to ask him for what I really want. What I’m looking for is so weird. “Listen, do you sell goose quills?”
“Goose feather pens.” I waggle my fingers with a stupid pen-like gesture, I don’t know why. “You know like Thomas Jefferson, or Shakespeare or something. Feather pens? Like people used to write?”
“Feather pens? Hell, you say.”
I was online looking at these images of fragmented papyrus pages from the original Nag Hammadi codex scrolls of the Bible. I saw the real ones once, in the New York Public Library when they were on display. The actual pages are tiny, about the size of a pocket notebook. The letters in Greek are beautiful, perfect, delicately shaded and precise as a printing press. And they were written a thousand years ago with feathers. I want to learn how to do that.
“You mean like – “ and he waggles his fingers in a pen like gesture too. I think I’ve infected him with my weirdness. “An old cut up feather?”
“Yeah. Kind of.”
“Mnn Mnnn.” He looks disappointed.
“How about this, do you have an old Arkansas stone?”
He looks thoughtful. “Naw, might try a bait shop.”
“Tried ‘em. They’ve got these little high tech looking things, but nobody sells stones for sharpening your own pen knife. I figure maybe I can learn how to make quill pens if I have a really sharp knife.”
“Let me see.” He hefts up his stick and goes off to look. I find myself almost hoping he doesn’t find one. I’d save money if I just bought an X Acto knife. I start wandering around, breathing, opening my senses, just feeling the buzz of the ghosts. Beyond the cameras, a cardboard box of vacuum tubes in original packaging. I remember Dad swapping those old tubes whenever the TV was on the fritz. I played with them, pretending they were rocket ships. Boxes of old phonograph records, mostly schlocky stuff you wonder why they’d wasted the wax on. And on the wall beyond, a place that makes me strangely afraid. The old books.
I move gently among their sloppy lonesome rows, not wanting to disturb them with false hope, stepping softly like wandering through a haunted house. Ray Bradbury is right, they do smell like spices, like dry leaves you crush in your hands in the autumn. They are the ranks of the fallen.
Cardboard boxes, bone boxes of ideas, the ossuaries of books that came and went without ever being noticed by any but their authors. They say the vast majority of published books are commercial flops. The money is made mostly by an elite few, over and over. The business trick is being able to gamble on the right ones often enough to cut your losses on all the flops. Digital books will change that over time.
Whenever I walk into my little guest room at home where all my rat shack fiber board book cases, are sagging under their load of books I feel a great thrill at my own ignorance. The Bible says King Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines. That's a lot of pussy. That's how I feel when I switch on the light in the guest room and see them all coming to attention, aroused at my prescence. I want to know every one of these better. Even so, most of these books and I know each other intimately and physically. We’ve traveled to hotel rooms together. They’ve all been to my bed room at one time or another. The best of them have stayed on the table by my bed for many days, resting beside me in the dark, whispering in my ear as I dream. I will never let them go. I never go out into the world without one of them for company. They are my lovers, vast and interesting and full of soul.
But these old books in the junk shop, who never had their moment in the sun, fill me with a dread of mortality. The saddest books are usually the most beautiful and often the wisest ones. The genuine antiques, bound in tooled leather, with proud names like Shakespeare and Emerson, were not made to be read only looked at. They remind me of certain sad women who are physical perfection, born to be kept and looked at, but always lonely. I pick up a few and open them each gently, as if fearful I might offend them with my pity. I open them because somebody should and put my nose to them and smell their perfume, also because somebody should. The cleanness of the un-penciled pages, the perfect roundness of the spine, untouched. Uncaressed. The leaves never spread open wide by hands, eager to be enjoyed. Never penetrated. Pretty show books shelved in glass cases in somebody’s parlor room to impress guests, but themselves never explored and cherished, carried in a pocket or book bag. Intuitively, I always feel like everything wants to be what it is, to do what it was made to do. A car wants to be driven. A toy plane wants to fly. A pen wants to write. A book wants to be read. I feel immensely sad for them. They are harder for me to resist even than the old cameras, this depressing harem of elderly virgins.
Every one of them was some writer’s darling once. Each was written by someone who thought they were smart, visionary and learned. Every author was proud of his creation. And then the creation failed.
I crack open a leather pocket book with yellowed pages. A flake of brown drops off the spine; torn slightly as she's opened, the old virgin weeps as I move into her at last, easeing myself carefully into her fragile deepness. The title page “Leaves of Grass” by Walt Whitman. I know this book, I have this book at home, a cheap second hand paperback. And my cheap little book - oh – it is no virgin. The day I bought it, we couldn’t wait to be alone together.
I caress her spine to calm her. I whisper to her, I know you. I won’t hurt you; I’ll be so gentle and respectful. Lie still and let me look at you. Open yourself wide to me and let me have you. I open it at random to “Song of Myself” and find:
With music strong I come, with my cornets and my drums,
I play not marches for accepted victors only, I play marches for
conquer'd and slain persons.
Have you heard that it was good to gain the day?
I also say it is good to fall, battles are lost in the same spirit
in which they are won.
I beat and pound for the dead,
I blow through my embouchures my loudest and gayest for them.
Vivas to those who have fail'd!
And to those whose war-vessels sank in the sea!
And to those themselves who sank in the sea!
And to all generals that lost engagements, and all overcome heroes!
And the numberless unknown heroes equal to the greatest heroes known!
And to Uncle Walt I might have added, to all authors whose darlings were never bought and read and sank out of print unknown.
Oh you’re lovely, little book. I would take you home to my bed, to touch and turn your clean pages late at night alone we two, conversing by lamplight while the house sleeps. I turn her over, looking for a price. How much –
“Found one!” yells the old guy, coming over with a little worn stick of rock.
I can almost hear the little book cry out as I put it back on the shelf and turn away. “How much?” The guy hands me the whetstone and I roll it over in my hands.
“Give it away to you, two bucks even.”
I glance back at the books, thinking. “Naw. I’m good.”